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Gatlinburg TN. - A brief History

Posted by on May 24, 2017

Gatlinburg, TN is a beautiful town surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on three sides.  A little known fact is that Gatlinburg did not always have that name.  It was once known as White Oak Flats, named for the vast array of white oak trees in the valley.

Ogle Log Cabin - GatlinburgThe First Settlers

Many people believe that in 1807, a woman named Martha Jane Huskey Ogle from South Carolina was the first official settler in White Oak Flats.  She came with her seven children, and several other family members.  Her late husband, William, had already ventured into the area.  While he was there, he picked out a settlement point, and cut the trees for his new log cabin home.  When he returned to his wife and children, he described it as a “Land of Paradise”; now known as Eastern Tennessee.

William was preparing to bring his family back to White Oak Flats when he became severely ill. In modern times, it is believed that he succumbed to malaria.  He died in 1803, leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless. It took four years for Martha to finally move to this “Land of Paradise”.  She followed the directions he had left her, and found the place where he’d intended to build their home.  The widow, her children, and the other family who’d come along for the ride built the Gatlinburg log cabin he’d once imagined living in.

A Growing Population

It wasn’t long after that other families began to move to White Oak Flats, including the McCarter family, the Reagan family, the Whaley family, and the Trentham family.  They joined the Ogle’s in making their homes in the beautiful of Eastern Tennessee.

For the settlers, religion was an important part of life.  The area was mostly settled by Presbyterians.  The first church built, however, was Baptist due to the influence of the many Baptist Missionaries in the area. It is said that one of the very first community structures built was this church in 1835.  It was known as the White Oaks Baptist Church.  No longer would people have to hold services outdoors or simply in their homes.

The community of White Oak Flats was entirely self-sufficient, and remained unchanged for nearly a hundred years. Then came the Civil War.  Many of the locals joined the Union, while others joined the Confederacy.

The Civil War

Most people don’t know about the Battle of Burg Hill — one of the civil war battles fought in the area. It was occupied by the Confederate army led by Major William H. Thomas. Since most of the settlers supported the Union, it was no surprise when they drove out the Confederate forces that had taken hold in Gatlinburg.  Of course, it wasn’t easy.  There were several raids from both sides of the battle as they fought for the needed supplies that would help continue the war effort.  Even long after the war ended, the consequences lived on.  Most of the south suffered through deprivation and poverty.  Yet, they still survived.

Commerce in the Mountains

In 1850, Noah Ogle opened the first known and recorded shop in White Oak Flats. A proud and ambitious man, Noah provided the community with a much needed service.  Later on, the site of his store actually became known as the Riverside Hotel.  Sixty years later, in 1910, he relocated, opening up his store on the intersection of River Road and Elkmont Highway.  His store lived on through many generations, providing the people of the community with most anything a person could need. Eventually, however, the old general store and the surrounding Gatlinburg tourist cabins were torn down to make way for the Mountain Mall.

Ogle wasn’t the only one to open up a store; in 1854 a secondary general store was opened by Radford C. Gatlin.  While he was a very intelligent businessman, he was also very outspoken.  He was known for speaking his mind, and for advocating the Confederate cause.  Eventually his controversial stances ended up getting him kicked out of the community.

The Origins of "Gatlinburg"

Ronald Reagan, a member of one of the first families to follow the Widow Ogle, became the first official postmaster of White Oak Flats.  The post office was opened sometime in the mid 1800s.  Mr. Gatlin played a large part in allowing this to happen.  He gave Reagan office space in his store for the post office.  Reagan was so grateful for this act of kindness that he named his office “Gatlinburg”.  People began referring to the town as this, and eventually in the late 1800s, it became the official name of the town.

In the 1800s, education came to the town in the form of ‘subscription schools’. Parents had to pay for their children’s education; similar to how private schools work in the modern world. Classes were held in different peoples’ homes by several different teachers. Unlike the current school calendar, students only attended school for a few months out of the year.  This was due to the way family structures were in those times.  Children were often given the responsibility of helping plant and harvest crops to feed their families.

In 1912, a real school was built in an unused church. It was created by a fraternity called Pi Beta Phi; a woman’s organization renown for it’s cause in helping those in need. Ogle played a part in opening this school.  After being urged to by the community, he eventually sold thirty five acres to the fraternity so they would have a place to establish the school.   Initially, when the school first opened, it had only 13 students.  This changed, of course, when the Ogle farm was sold to Pi Beta Phi in 1921 so they could expand.

School was initially focused on craft skills.  This helped Gatlinburg to establish a great arts and crafts community that still lives on today.

The First Buildings

Many of the original buildings have been refurbished and are still in use to this very day.  It is now known as the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.  The Ogle’s family log cabin in Gatlinburg was eventually moved from it’s original location to the Arrowmont Campus.  If you wish to learn more about the school and it’s history, you can read up on it at

Elijah Lawson Reagan owned of the oldest operated businesses in Gatlinburg’s history: a woodworking shop.  For over a decade, he would practice his trade using nothing besides his hand tools. Reagen was more than just a craftsman, though; he was a very resourceful man. In the 1920s, he harvested the power of the Roaring Fork: a stream that originates almost 5,000 feet up Mt. Le Conte.  From this, he built a water wheel. He also installed a turbine and generator so he could have power for his shop and his brand new power tools.

Besides being a great crafter, and a resourceful man, he was also a gentleman.  He provided electricity to his neighbors all the way up until the Tennessee Valley Authority came to the valley and provided power that was much less expensive.  Reagan died in 1968, but his family name and legacy lives on through his descendants.  One of his family members owns E. L. Reagan Furniture Company.

In Conclusion

This, of course, is only a small amount of the Gatlinburg history.  It is now known as a popular place to vacation in, making use of the cabins for rent in Gatlinburg.  While it is definitely a wonderful place to take a break from the stress of the modern world, whether you’re staying in a cheap Gatlinburg cabin, or a of the best Gatlinburg cabins, the rich history of the town makes it even better place to visit.  The people who originated there, such as the Ogles, the Reagans, the Gatlins, and many others made this beautiful place what it is. Because of their hard work, and their tireless dedication, Gatlinburg continues to grow and flourish to this very day.

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